Barriers to Bike Share Equity in St. Paul

As the Twin Cities embarks on the next iteration of bike share, it’s important to note a few things as it relates to current plans. In September, Nice Ride Minnesota let an RFP for an operator to come into the Twin Cities and operate the current Nice Ride station-based system until 2010 – or the end of the useful life of current equipment. Additionally, proposers were asked to create for the Twin Cities a station-free (AKA dockless) bike share. Simply stated, station-free bike share allows bikes to be parked anywhere as defined by community parking rules and rent them from anywhere for $1 per half hour or hour depending on the provider. Full disclosure, I represent Spin, the San Francisco based station-free bike share company. We submitted a proposal – more on that later.

The RFP process yielded two finalists: Motivate and LimeBike. Both were asked to present to the public at Macalester College earlier this fall. At that meeting, Motivate stressed the need to be an exclusive provider in Minneapolis (including Park and Rec land), St. Paul, and the University of Minnesota. I’m going out on a bit of a limb here, but since Motivate has been in conversations with Nice Ride about this arrangement for several months, it could lead one to believe that they will be the chosen vendor. If this is the case, it may be a bit disingenuous to have created the RFP process if the outcome was pre-determined. At Spin, we submitted a proposal that was outside the boundaries of the RFP but one that we thought was best for the Twin Cities. We proposed to hire Nice Ride to maintain our fleet of bikes and move them around as needed. This would have resulted in Spin paying Nice Ride between 100 and 200 thousand dollars per year. We were far enough off the dime that we didn’t make it to the final two.

At the Macalester College presentation, Justin Ginsburgh, and Alex Vickers, both from Motivate, presented their plan for the Twin Cities. They pledged to keep 30% of the bikes in St. Paul through a phased rollout of thousands of bikes by 2020. Additionally, Mr. Ginsburgh, responding to a question about “why exclusivity?” He responded that without exclusivity, Motivate couldn’t sustain the system financially and it could fail.

As of this writing, Mssrs. Vickers and Ginsburgh are no longer with Motivate. Mr. Vickers has begun working at Social Bicycles (a Station-free company), and Mr. Ginsurgh has reportedly joined an airline – Jet Blue. Speaking outside the bounds of bike share equity, the uncertainty resulting from the departure of two of the main players in this theater should give us pause.

Station-free bikes in Seattle


One of the mainstays of creating and sustaining an equitable bike share system in the Twin Cities will be bike density – enough bikes in North Minneapolis, The East Side of St. Paul, Frogtown, and Rondo. Motivate has pledged 30% in St. Paul but no specific mention of the number of bikes in the aforementioned neighborhoods. Motivate plans to use their Station Based bikes (free of the station) in the station-free system, a very expensive choice. These bikes will cost them more than other providers by factor of as much as 5x. It will be critical for them to keep bikes in high traffic areas and forgo interest in less travelled areas – North Minneapolis, The East Side of St. Paul, Frogtown, and Rondo. If they have to promise to keep bikes in these areas, bike share equity will already be compromised. It will be more advantageous for the Twin Cities to have enough bikes at our disposal to adequately serve these communities

I believe that the Twin Cities, as many other cities in the country, will benefit from a permitting process that will allow multiple vendors to enter the market. Seattle, Washington DC**, Charlotte**, Los Angeles**, will benefit from the cities deciding, separate from Nice Ride Minnesota, what the next generation of bike share will look like in the Twin Cities. I won’t litigate this here as it has been discussed in an earlier post by Kate Lockhart.

So what does this mean for equity? Anthony Taylor has spoken eloquently about bike share in underserved communities. He has observed that “no one rides a bike in the Twin Cities.” Think about this. Minneapolis brags of nearly 5% mode share of people choosing to ride a bike to work each day. This means that 95% of Minneapolitans don’t ride a bike to work. There is much work to be done.

Beyond making bikes available to residents of underserved communities, we must create incentive programs, host social rides (Slow Roll), and encourage people to use bikes for transportation. The more bikes in the immediate community, the easier it will be to get people to ride them. With multiple vendors serving St. Paul (and the rest of the Twin Cities), we can serve many more people. It’s been said that the Twin Cities (St. Paul, Minneapolis and first ring suburbs) market can absorb as many as 30,000 to 40,000 bikes. One provider will be hard pressed to make this happen in the Metro much less in North Minneapolis, The East Side of St. Paul, Frogtown, and Rondo. Just preparing 40,000 bikes for service is a herculean effort. In this case, exclusivity is a barrier to bike share equity. To ensure an equitable program, the Metro players must insist on a program that will allow multiple vendors to serve our community.

** each of the asterisk cities have station-based bike share in place already.

Tony Desnick

About Tony Desnick

Tony Desnick is an architect, urban designer, and bicycle activist. He has worked in the bike share industry since 2013. He has ridden a bike for the last 56 years and commutes year 'round by bike today. He serves several local and int'l non-profit boards of directors. In May 2016, he presented a TEDx talk about how bicycles can change us and our communities. It can be found here:

12 thoughts on “Barriers to Bike Share Equity in St. Paul

  1. Melissa WenzelMelissa Wenzel

    Commenting to follow thread and developments. Count me in on representing the east side and continue to help support bike infrastructure/systems in all of Saint Paul.

  2. Jason Partridge

    I’ll be honest – this article doesn’t, in my mind, have any compelling argument for how multiple vendors will actually lead to a more equitable distribution of bikes. The argument is basically saying “more bikes is good” (mixed in with a not-insignificant quantity of “my company should have been picked”) which is totally and completely different from saying “more bikes/more companies leads to more equitable outcomes.” Saying that more bikes will lead to more equity totally and completely misunderstands what equity actually is and how more of a given resource (e.g. bikes) doesn’t mean that the benefits of that resource will be equitably distributed.

    One thought behind a sole-source contract is that, by picking a winner and offering them a target market, we can add requirements into a contract that specifically mandate equitable outcomes; e.g. “xx% of bikes each morning at 6am must be located in an area with xx% of racially concentrated poverty.” We’re still trying to identify how to set meaningful goals with teeth – but that’s part of what a sole-source contract offers us as a metro area.

    It’s possible that the committee might pick the wrong provider. But the idea that a permitted, market-based bike share free-for-all will lead to more equitable outcomes fundamentally misunderstands the inequities of capitalism and how market competition specifically screws over working class people and people of color.

  3. Kate Lockhart

    Jason – I think you bring up some really good points and valid criticisms here. I especially like your idea of including requirements to achieve equitable outcomes into any contract or agreement the city makes with a dockless vendor. That said, I don’t see why that is an argument for a sole-source provider. Couldn’t the city just as easily include those requirements in contracts or permitting applications for multiple vendors?

    In fact, if Saint Paul were to allow multiple operators, the city could use the threat of revoking a permit or reducing one vendor’s quota and reallocating it to another competing vendor, to compel the vendors to comply with the requirements. That’s how competition works and benefits all users.

    1. Kate Lockhart

      To be clear – I acknowledge that Saint Paul could also use the threat of revoking the agreement with a single-source vendor if that vendor did not meet the agreed upon requirements. However, with only one provider, that threat carries a lot less weight since revoking the agreement means getting rid bike share altogether. In a multi-vendor system, Saint Paul could revoke the permit of the offending vendor and still have other bike share options available for its citizens.

    2. Monte Castleman

      “Achieving Equitable Outcomes” is likely to be expensive. Not only probably trucking bicycles to areas of town where they’ll get less use, but the bookkeeping to make sure they’re in compliance. My thought is companies are less likely to be interested in agreeing to those terms if they are not a monopoly.

  4. Tony DesnickTony Desnick Post author

    Each of the cities that have used a permitting process have requirements – that differ from place to place – that require a minimum number of bikes to be available in identified neighborhoods. A monopoly will not ensure profitability or, in most cases, viability because the number of bikes required to serve any specific neighborhoods will be difficult for one player to provide. Large cities that may be coming online soon – Chicago and St. Louis – will have a heavy requirement. It will be especially difficult for Motivate as their bikes are much more expensive than other bikeshare 2.0 bikes (called “Skittles” by Barb Chamberlain from the Cascade Bike Club.)

    While Spin was in the running (before the short list) for the exclusive contract, we are on record publicly stating that we didn’t think an exclusive contract was appropriate even though we might have benefited from such an agreement. Competition is better for customers and residents. It makes each of the providers better and it keeps price pressure on in the right direction.

    In St. Paul, we will be moving toward a one supplier garbage collection system – a monopoly. One can argue that in this case, it serves the public good. Fewer trucks polluting the air, dragon our streets, making noise, etc. I don’t think the same can be said for bike share. No one has challenged bike share exclusivity regarding restraint of trade or any-trust legislation yet, but I’m guessing a challenge will come soon from of the deep pocket players, Mobike or ofo.

  5. Melody HoffmannMelody Lynn Hoffmann

    TBH, this article reads more like a clever press release than an actual editorial/column/opinion piece.

    It leaves a bad taste in my mouth that a company is utilizing the term “equity” to basically complain about their org not being chosen.

    I agree with everything Jason says.

    Because I’m not privy to the details, I just wanted to share my perspective as an outsider. This reads more smarmy than critical of the status quo.

  6. tony desnick

    At Spin we knew we wouldn’t be awarded the contract as we didn’t properly respond to what Nice Ride asked. Bottom line is St. Paul will need to see enough of a critical mass of bikes in Rondo,the east side, and Frogtown with the underpining of programming to support resudents. I have never thought one privider can make that happen.

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